A Gate at the Stairs

Family, race, and religion mingle in Lorrie Moore's incisive coming-of-age novel about a college girl disillusioned by what she sees of adult life.

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Some writers defy classification. Lorrie Moore is one. Here she has been masquerading for more than a decade as one of the finest short story writers in North America, when in fact, she’s an even better novelist. (And for someone frequently cited just after Alice Munro in the pantheon of the brief-and-brilliant, that’s saying something.)

Her first book in 11 years, A Gate at the Stairs, is similarly difficult to pin down. On the surface, it’s a sharply observed coming-of-age novel about Tassie Keltjin, a bright Midwestern farm girl for whom college offers a liberating taste of the cosmopolitan. (For Tassie, Chinese food qualifies as exotic.) Tassie’s outwardly meek nature conceals a perceptive intelligence, but Tassie might not be quite as sophisticated as she thinks reading Sylvia Plath has made her. Moore uses Tassie’s precocious yet naive eyes to take a deep look at the roles of race, family, and religion in America, while managing to be more profound about 9/11 than such luminaries as John Updike and Ian McEwan.

In December 2001, Tassie, whose dad grows tiny, egglike organic potatoes for yuppies and whose mom loathes her role as a farm wife, is looking for a job as a nanny and losing her illusions about adulthood at the same time. “These middle-aged women seemed very tired to me, as if hope had been wrung out of them and replaced with a deathly, walking sort of sleep,” Tassie says of her prospective employers.

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She is hired by Sarah Brink, who dresses like Marie Curie and talks like, well, a character from Moore’s 1998 collection, “Birds of America.” Her laugh, for example, is “a quasi laugh, a socially constructed laugh – a collection of predetermined notes, like the chimes of a doorbell.” Sarah runs an upscale restaurant that serves quenelles and timbales – foods Tassie has never tasted, but that “sound like instruments.” The Brinkses are in the process of adopting a child, and Tassie accompanies Sarah on a series of awkward interviews with birth mothers before the Brinkses adopt a biracial toddler named Mary.

Meanwhile, at home on what the developers have left of the farm, her dad is drinking too much, her mother has taken to putting mirrors in the garden to double the appearance of her efforts, and her brother Robert is on the verge of failing high school and would really like some advice from his preoccupied sister. Tassie, however, is completely caught up with her surrogate family.

At times as astringent as paint thinner – and just as effective at cutting through goop – “A Gate at the Stairs” is also incisively funny in a way that you don’t see so often in an era dominated by Judd Apatow imitators. And while the first two-thirds of the book are witty and endearing in a meandering, seemingly aimless way, those pleasant paths are leading toward a guided tour of grief. Readers who want writers to get to the point, be warned: Moore’s got one, and it’s sharp enough to drive right through your heart.

Readers can’t say Moore didn’t warn us. “A Gate at the Stairs” opens with a killing frost that wipes out songbirds fooled by an extended period of warmth and sunshine. The book follows a similar pattern, sweetly lulling a reader with humorous asides and brilliant bits of dialogue for about 200 pages before the hurting starts. Or rather, before the observant Tassie becomes aware of just how much she has not seen.

There are many gates described throughout the novel – from protective child gates to airport gates – but the first is a broken wooden one. “[W]hen I pushed open its gate it slipped a little; one of its hinges was loose and missing a nail. I had to lift the gate to relatch it. This maneuver, one I’d performed any number of times in my life, gave me a certain satisfaction – of tidiness, of restoration, of magic me! – when in fact, it should have communicated itself as something else: someone’s ill-disguised decrepitude, items not cared for properly but fixed repeatedly in a make-do fashion, needful things having gotten away from their caregiver.”

As spring progresses, it becomes apparent to Tassie that more than just house repairs may have gotten away from the Brinkses (although the scale is beyond her comprehension). Meanwhile, 2-year-old Mary seems to be adjusting to her new home, but her new mother is having a more awkward transition. After a nasty bit of drive-by racism, an outraged Sarah convenes a support group for the “transracial, biracial, multiracial families,” of the town. Tassie baby-sits all the children whose parents attend the Wednesday meetings, hoping the children won’t hear the furious debate (rendered in pages of pitch-perfect dialogue) coming from the living room. The caustic talk floats upward unimpeded, but Tassie’s not allowed to sing Mary “I Been Working on the Railroad” for reasons of grammar and slave labor.

When not taking Mary for rides in her wagon, Tassie flings herself headlong into a relationship with Reynaldo, an immigrant student she meets in her Intro to Sufism class (as opposed to her Intro to Wine Tasting, or Soundtracks of War Movies classes) and ignores e-mails from her brother, who’s considering joining the military.

Moore excels at description, and “A Gate at the Stairs” is full of perception-altering depictions of even common flora. Coneflowers have never been so poignant. (However, I only wish spring in the Upper Midwest came as early as in the accelerated timeline of the novel. It’s tough to get tulips and peonies in March, when there’s still a foot or so of snow on the ground.) And she is just as good at sibling relationships as she is at small-town liberal posturing. “I wanted to say, ‘Remember the time,’ ” Tassie says as she and Robert stand throwing rocks into a stream over the Christmas holidays. “But too often when we compared stories from our childhood, they didn’t match. I would speak of a trip or a meal or a visit from a cousin and of something that had happened during it, and Robert would look at me as if I were speaking of the adventures of some Albanian rock band.”

There are some books that you don’t so much want to review as to hand out copies to all your reading friends. This is one of those.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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